I’ve never understood why some people like to read novels about a fatally ill character’s final days or weeks. I know Death is out there, but I’d rather not have that be the focus for my reading time. So a death-and-dying novel by Elizabeth Berg, one of my favorite writers, is a mixed blessing. If you’re a Berg fan like me, you’ll probably want to read Never Change. But if you’re not familiar with her work, I’d suggest that you get to know this talented author through a different book.
Life and love have pretty much passed by fifty-one year old Myra Lipinski. In high school, she was the girl who sold prom tickets because nobody asked her to go, the one whose yearbook quote was “You can count on Myra.” After high school she became a nurse and built a quiet life for herself in suburban Boston with her beloved dog, Frank. She has few social outlets, other than the patients she sees regularly as a visiting nurse.
Then she is assigned a new patient - Chip Reardon, once the most popular boy in Myra’s high school, who was athletic, smart, popular and nice. Chip is dying of a brain tumor and has refused the aggressive treatment that might temporarily prolong his life. He seems genuinely glad to see Myra, and the two realize that the playing field has been leveled in many ways - Chip is no longer “golden” and Myra is no longer just a wallflower. But Chip’s old high school girlfriend, Diann, a former cheerleader (of course), comes to visit and ends up staying with Myra. The three make an unusual and somber romantic triangle - Diann still loves Chip, but Chip starts seeing Myra with new eyes, while Myra assumes that she has nothing to offer other than her nursing skills.
Berg’s trademark skill is her ability to write about those impossibly small moments in time that ring so true you could swear she was inside your own mind. Her sentences are small works of art, making her brief novels feel much longer because you want to re-read so many passages. Her message doesn’t vary much from book to book - it’s all about making connections despite our inherent aloneness, and appreciating the small miracles of life while we can. In this novel, Chip’s impending death and their doomed affair help Myra break out of her self-imposed isolation to finally live a full life.
But despite the presence of the usual Berg-isms, Never Change was not one of my top five novels by this author. The stereotypical crush between the plain girl and the popular boy seemed silly to me - haven’t most of us moved beyond high school once we realized that we didn’t have to remain stuck in those roles as adults? Sure, I remember the most popular boy in my high school, but I don’t waste time pining for him. (I assume he’s on his second marriage and selling insurance by now.)
Never Change is much more of a tearjerker than the usual Berg novel. She has tackled death and dying before, in Talk Before Sleep, but her approach was never this maudlin. The physical and emotional deterioration of a man dying of brain cancer is relentlessly depressing, and there is little of Berg’s dry humor to leaven the story. The love story doesn’t work either - Myra’s relationship with Chip feels more like a mother caring for a sick child than one between two equal partners, so the inevitable lovemaking seems vaguely sordid instead of a wonderful breakthrough. Myra’s regular home health patients do add some interest to the story, although I wonder at the veracity of Berg’s portrayal of a drug dealer with a heart of gold.
Considering we only get treated to one new Berg novel per year, I wish she had chosen another plot for her 2001 release. If you like well-written novels that provide insight into the human condition, I’d suggest Berg’s earlier efforts, such as Open House, Durable Goods and Joy School. As for me, I’ll start my vigil for the 2002 Berg , hoping that it will be more to my liking.